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Hartnett: Rangers Will Eliminate The Penguins In 5 Games

Henrik Lundqvist (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Henrik Lundqvist (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

The Rangers are yet to win a playoff series against the rival Penguins. Since their first meeting in 1989, the Penguins have won all four playoff series and have earned victories in 16 of 20 postseason encounters with the Blueshirts.

All of that is ancient history. The last time these two teams met under the playoff spotlight was in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals, where the Penguins defeated the Rangers in five games on their way to a Stanley Cup Finals meeting with the Detroit Red Wings.

To put things into perspective,  Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are the only Rangers who remain from that 2008 team. Back then, Tom Renney presided behind the Rangers’ bench. It would be Renney’s final full season with the Blueshirts, as the fiery and controversial John Tortorella replaced him for the final 21 games of the 2008-09 season.

Current head coach Alain Vigneault has transformed the Rangers into something entirely different compared to his predecessors. The Rangers no longer cling to Tortorella’s “safe-is-death,” defense-first principles. Whereas Tortorella’s dated philosophies held the Rangers back, Vigneault favors an exciting, uptempo brand of hockey that allows players to maximize their full potential. The progression of Mats Zuccarello from role player into the team’s leading regular-season point-getter is proof of Vigneault’s ability to make full use of the players at his disposal.

Crucially, Vigneault has allowed defenseman Ryan McDonagh to blossom into an elite two-way defenseman by allowing the 24-year-old blueliner to join the rush whenever he desires.

Vigneault has proven to be an excellent hire by Rangers general manager Glen Sather because of his intellect. One of Vigneault’s greatest strengths is his use of zone-matching to ensure that the Rangers have strong possession numbers. Vigneault leans on Brian Boyle to win key defensive zone face-offs, whereas the more offensively-gifted players such as Zuccarello are deployed in offensive-zone starts.

The combination of Vigneault’s fresh approach and the natural skill and athleticism possessed by this current group of Rangers means that all the old history between the Pens and Blueshirts can be thrown out the window.

Here’s why the Rangers will eliminate the Penguins in five games:

SHAKY BLUE-LINERS AND INCONSISTENT FLEURY COULD BE A RECIPE FOR DISASTER FOR PITTSBURGH

Marc-Andre Fleury has become a lightning rod for criticism because of his inconsistent performances between the pipes. Fleury has imploded in two previous playoffs in 2012 and 2013.

He did not give away any games in his first series aside from his Game 4 meltdown. The bigger issue might be the Penguins’ propensity for neutral-zone turnovers, defensive-zone turnovers and blowing leads. In Game 6 against the Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh surrendered three consecutive goals in the third period, having gone into the final frame with a 4-0 second-intermission lead.

Questions remain about Fleury’s mentality and positional play. Fleury tends to be overaggressive and often misplays the puck. This time around, there isn’t the security blanket of veteran Tomas Vokoun backing him up. 26-year-old backup Jeff Zatkoff is yet to make a postseason appearance.

The health of shutdown defenseman Brooks Orpik is a key. Orpik did not participate in Friday’s morning skate and missed Games 5 and 6 due to an undisclosed injury. 25-year-old Robert Bortuzzo filled in admirably for Orpik against the Blue Jackets, but a healthy Orpik would make a huge difference for the Pens.

Friday morning defensive pairings for the Penguins were Martin-Letang, Maata-Niskanen, Scuderi-Bortuzzo.

Pittsburgh cannot rack up turnovers in round two, as the Rangers possess exceptional team speed and have the ability to make the Pens pay in transition. Fleury could be hung out to dry if Pittsburgh’s miscues pile up against the Rangers.

RANGERS HAVE THE BLUE-LINE DEPTH TO SHUT DOWN PENGUINS’ STARS

The Rangers boast three rock-solid defensive pairings in McDonagh-Girardi, Staal-Stralman and J. Moore-Klein.

Sidney Crosby did not score in any of the six games against the Blue Jackets, but he’s the leading candidate to win the Hart Trophy and registered six assists in round one. Crosby has actually gone 11 playoff games without scoring a goal, yet he’s winning draws and making positive contributions all over the ice.

You know that he will eventually light the lamp with some awe-inspiring clutch goals. It’s a matter of how quiet the Rangers can keep Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. The Penguins’ scoring depth drops off significantly after their top two lines of Kunitz-Crosby-Stempniak and Jokinen-Malkin-Neal.

If McDonagh-Girardi and Staal-Stralman do their jobs, the Penguins will have trouble finding ways to solve all-world netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

KEY PLAYER FOR RANGERS: RICK NASH

The 29-year-old winger has taken a deluge of flak for not scoring a single goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in round one. Ye he was effective for the majority of the series by unleashing creative passes, delivering big hits and adding positive contributions on the penalty kill.

It’s hard to see the Rangers advancing should Nash’s struggle to score continue. In 19 playoff games as a Ranger, Nash has only scored one goal. Nash registered 30 shots on goal — the second-most of any player — during the first round, yet he was blanked by the Flyers. At some point he’s going to catch fire because you can’t keep a player of Nash’s quality quiet forever. Nash has far too much physical strength, intelligence and natural creativity not to be lighting the lamp consistently.

He’s going to play a big part in whether the Rangers’ power play continues to slump into round two. The Rangers finished their series with the Flyers 0-for-their-last-21 with the man advantage.

Should Nash ignite the Rangers and play a key part in eliminating the Penguins, his perception will be changed entirely.

KEY PLAYER FOR THE PENGUINS: JAMES NEAL

Usually a surefire goal-scorer, Neal scored one goal and contributed zero assists in round one. Neal can light the lamp with the best of them in this league, given his 27 goals in 59 regular-season games and his quick release.  It’s vital for the Penguins that Neal gets on the same wavelength as Malkin.

X-FACTOR FOR THE RANGERS: HEALTH OF CHRIS KREIDER

The Rangers have closely guarded updates regarding winger Chris Kreider. He is still considered to be out indefinitely. Vigneault leaned heavily on the 23-year-old winger throughout the regular season and Kreider was one of the players who meshed nicely with his uptempo system.

It was clear how much the Rangers missed Kreider during their series against the Flyers given their power-play struggles. Krieder scored six power-play goals in 66 regular-season games.

Should Kreider be able to play at some point in this series, it would be a tremendous boost for the Blueshirts. He excels in the transition game and knows how to use his 6-foot-3, 226-pound body in the dirty areas in front of net.

X-FACTOR FOR PENGUINS: THE MENTALITY OF MARC-ANDRE FLEURY

This series could swing in one direction or the other based on whether Fleury is able to keep his focus.  The Penguins’ habit of turnovers is worrying given Fleury’s mental fragility. Should Fleury implode, the Rangers will eliminate the Pens in quick fashion. That’s why I have the Penguins losing this series in five games.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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